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South Asia Regional Hub Inaugural Workshop

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— 4 minutes reading time

From 31 January to 1 February 2023, mayors, council members, provincial assembly members and other local officials, along with national government and civil society representatives from across the South Asia region. gathered to discuss the role of local government in preventing and building resilience to extremism, hate and polarisation, and to chart an exciting path forward for the newly launched Strong Cities’ South Asia Regional Hub.

In light of the traditionally centralised and securitised approaches to these issues across South Asia, the workshop allowed participants from across the region to explore the prevention potential of local governments while examining their existing capacities and needs and the ways in which the Regional Hub can offer support. Participants shared how – as part of existing service provision and other responsibilities, including those related to public health, housing, social welfare and education – local governments at all levels across the region have the greatest interaction with communities and arguably best understand their dynamics, challenges and needs.

Despite this, participants emphasised that they rarely have an existing mandate for prevention and there are clear gaps in capacities and resources and limited, if any, coordination with both national government and security partners. In fact, it was highlighted that most local governments across the region have had neither the opportunity to consider their role on these issues previously, nor have they had the chance to engage with regional counterparts on wider social cohesion, resilience and violence prevention themes. Many shared that it was a first opportunity to understand how these challenges manifest elsewhere at local levels, both within and beyond their own country.

The workshop featured powerful testimony from mayors and other local leaders representing the five countries present. The Mayor of Mardan (Pakistan) spoke of the challenges of settling 1,500,000 internally displaced people in his district at the height of the conflict in Afghanistan. He shared his fears of more violence with resurgent terrorist groups in the area, tragically underlined by the devastating attack on a Peshawar mosque two days earlier, and spoke of the role of local peace committees and other mechanisms in coordinating both prevention and response. Representatives from Sri Lanka argued that city and other local governments had a duty for citizen wellbeing but lacked data related to marginalised groups and key threats as well as an understanding of the links to potential hate, violence or extremism. They underlined the need for more training on these issues for elected local councillors as part of their induction and support upon entering office.


Although participants shared examples of good practices like the community response mechanism developed in Eastern regions of Sri Lanka, they noted that there is little institutionalisation or means for sharing the learnings with other local areas. The Mayor of Satkania (Bangladesh) pointed to some of the national-level efforts since the 2016 Holey Artisan attack but urged renewed efforts to support women’s leadership on issues of inclusion, social cohesion and resilience in particular. The Mayor of Addu City (Maldives) spoke of the progress made since decentralisation in 2010 but warned that local leaders still needed significant support to build their capacities to engage on these challenges at local levels and complement existing security efforts. Elected representatives from New Delhi (India) meanwhile spoke of the need to tackle both communalism and hate speech as key priorities for local government. They noted that although there were some existing collaborations between State-level government and civil society organisations, city leaders and local councils had an important role to play in preventing the escalation of hate and polarisation, including through positive messaging, participatory and consultative planning processes and improving coordination with police.

Participants discussed the top-line findings and recommendations of a recent, forthcoming Strong Cities mapping of city-level prevention capacities, needs and priorities in the region, before dedicated sessions on national-local cooperation (NLC), multi-stakeholder prevention mechanisms and engaging youth and marginalised groups helped identify a number of good examples and lessons that merit wider dissemination. Key barriers and challenges identified included a lack of youth participation in local council issues including public safety and education, as well as a wider trust deficit between citizens and authorities, exacerbated by limited transparency and dysfunctional structures at local government levels that inhibit residents’ accessibility even where there are potential means for engagement.

Before concluding the workshop, participants developed workplans and priorities for Strong Cities engagement in each country, offering a roadmap for the South Asia Regional Hub to implement, including through its helpdesk, technical support fund and in-person or virtual activities. Stakeholders across the region reviewed workplans from other countries, identifying opportunities for sharing learnings and collaborating where they have mutual needs. In addition, participants are developing short responses to the regional mapping findings, addressing the relevance and gaps for individual countries to better inform Strong Cities’ work in the region. As a next step, the South Asia Regional Hub will work with participants to offer targeted support to key priority areas, ensuring that the cities and specific stakeholders identified for engagement are reached through regional and global efforts in the coming months.

Participants welcomed a fresh start for regional collaboration, with the workshop and the Regional Hub more broadly allowing cities and local governments to engage with each other and national governments on an issue traditionally preserved for national security agencies. Participants emphasised that, despite an array of varied challenges across the region, the South Asia Regional Hub offers an important mechanism to share learnings, address specific needs, and build the role and capacities of critical local government leaders and practitioners across each country.